Maple Leafs Are a Good Team…Deal with It

It has taken me a while to gather my thoughts. Unlike other writers that cover the Toronto Maple Leafs, I didn’t know what to say when I saw the news. Sure, I was excited and thrilled like every other fan in Leafs Nation, but I was left speechless as this is one of the biggest things to happen for the Maple Leafs, besides drafting Auston Matthews. When I heard the news it didn’t seem real and even when I saw it written out it was still surreal.

John Tavares is a Toronto Maple Leaf.

John Tavares
John Tavares (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It probably won’t truly sink in until Tavares takes his first step out onto the ice in his first game in the blue and white. This just doesn’t feel like the type of thing that should happen to the Maple Leafs. It’s been years since the team has been able to sign a top free agent, they were always the bridesmaid and never the bride of free agency. And then it happened, the Maple Leafs signed Tavares, one of the few true superstars to go to free agency and easily the best free agent in the last decade.

This signing immediately elevated the Maple Leafs to one of the best teams in the NHL. They finished the 2017-18 season with the most points in a season in Maple Leafs’ history and were tied for sixth-most points in the NHL with 105 points. And then they added an elite center with Tavares.

But somewhere underneath all the excitement about the signing, there was the negativity and pessimism of Leafs fans that was bubbling to the surface.

Is Matthews mad about the signing and how he won’t get to be captain? Can they even afford to re-sign any of their young stars? Even with Tavares the Leafs still aren’t great because their defense isn’t the best in the NHL. They should trade William Nylander for defense.

I understand this mentality in finding reasons or ways that the Maple Leafs just aren’t a top team. We have all just gotten so used to disappointment with this team and it’ll take more than just two years of making the playoffs to change that mentality, but Tavares coming to the Leafs should be a wake-up call. The Maple Leafs are good, no more excuses.

Affording the Big Three

After Tavares signed his seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs for an average annual value (AAV) of $11 million, the concern of fans turned to being able to afford to re-sign the big three of Mitch Marner, Nylander and Matthews.

With a contract of that magnitude, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to be right up against the salary cap with no room to sign Nylander to his new deal. Well, Nylander is the only restricted free agent (RFA) left for the Leafs to sign and they have, according to Cap Friendly, over $14 million in cap space.

William Nylander Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander battles for position with Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Some have thrown around outrageous contract numbers for Nylander’s new contract, but based on comparable players to Nylander his future contract should at most be a six or seven-year deal worth $6 million annually. So for next season, there are no worries about the salary cap for the Leafs.

The issue is next offseason when the Maple Leafs have to re-sign Matthews and Marner. Now as an educated guess I would put Marner at wanting to sign a contract worth $7 million and Matthews would be around $10 million. In reality, it will be more or less than that depending on how next season plays out, but never the less we will use those estimates.

The three key players in fitting Matthews and Marner under the cap are Ron Hainsey whose cap hit of $3 million comes off the books along with Jake Gardiner’s $4.05 million cap hit. Then there’s Patrick Marleau whose cap hit of $6.25 million becomes easier to trade in the final year of the contract.

So at the expense of losing those players, the Leafs would gain about $13 million in cap space. Now couple that with the estimated $8 million in space remaining after Nylander’s presumed contract and that the salary cap will presumably increase again, it will give the Maple Leafs enough cap space to sign both Matthews and Marner.

Part of the selling point for Tavares to come to Toronto is getting to play with those three players and general manager Kyle Dubas expressly stated on the 31 Thoughts Podcast that the Maple Leafs would be able to re-sign all three.

Matthews Upset over Tavares Signing?

This was something that seemed to just pop up without any substance, but it became enough of a talking point that it needed to be directly addressed. It was some variation of Matthews being upset with the Tavares signing because it would either decrease his ice-time or mean that he wouldn’t get to be captain.

Bobby Orr, who is the head of the agency that Matthews is with, came out to squash the rumours.

Solving the Maple Leafs Defensive Problems

Defense has always been an issue for the Maple Leafs, but somehow this is what holds the team back from being great. But with the addition of Tavares, it doesn’t worry me anymore, not when the Leafs have such an overpowering offence.

What really needs to be separated is getting better defensemen and being better at defense. One is a position and the other is what every player does when in the defensive zone. Sure that’s a pretty simple way of putting it, but it needs to be addressed.

Although the team could still stand to improve on their pairings, it was the forward lines that seemed to make the biggest defensive difference. Even though Roman Polak struggled for most of the season and Ron Hainsey seemed to fall apart at the end of the season I was never overly worried when they were on the ice. What did make me worry was the Tyler Bozak line.

Tyler Bozak Maple Leafs
Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dec. 12, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In terms of what matters with defense, keeping the puck out of the net, the Maple Leafs weren’t as bad as it seemed. The Leafs allowed the 12th fewest goals in the NHL at 230 goals against (GA). And for comparison, the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals allowed the 16th-fewest goals.

But if the Maple Leafs really wanted to improve then it comes down to finding someone better in the defensive zone than Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, who were defensive black holes.

And for the defensemen on the Leafs, it seems like more of a systems issue versus player issue. The best example of this was during the 2017-18 NHL playoffs against the Boston Bruins where the Leafs’ defense couldn’t make a breakout to save their lives. Their defensemen struggled to transition out of their own zone and constantly used stretch passes which are exemplified by the Maple Leafs having the fourth-most giveaways in the NHL at 1005.

What the Maple Leafs need isn’t a superstar defenseman, but forwards who are good at recovering pucks and defensemen who can transition the puck out to the neutral zone. They don’t need to trade Nylander to get that, and we don’t want to have a version of the Taylor Hall trade to happen for the Maple Leafs.

Tavares Is the Difference Maker

The Maple Leafs are a good young team that has continued to improve each season. They have a young core and great players like Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen on fantastic contracts. The Maple Leafs would get better and better regardless of having Tavares on the team, but they do and it gives the Leafs some of the best center depth in the NHL. Their one-two-punch of Tavares and Matthews is good enough to rival the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But it’s hard for that to feel real when Tavares hasn’t even played a game for the Leafs yet. The Maple Leafs have long been the laughing stock of the NHL, especially for fans. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and have since only gotten close a few times. Then there was 2005 to 2016 when the Maple Leafs were terrible and often unwatchable and only made the playoffs once in that time.

Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews
Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s hard to get past that negativity and inherit pessimism that has surrounded the team for so long, but we all knew things were turning around when the Maple Leafs drafted Matthews.

By signing Tavares it means that the Maple Leafs aren’t a rebuilding team anymore, they are a legitimate threat in the NHL. The time for expecting disappointment is over. It’s time to expect greatness for years to come. And now with the addition of Tavares, there is proof that our hopes can become reality.